College Football is Right Around the Corner

Finally! The countdown to football season has gone from months, to weeks, and now to days. Fall practice is now underway, and it won't be long before Mississippi State and South Carolina get things kicked off in primetime fashion on August 31.

Here's a little breakdown of a few key things to ponder and watch out for, and just in general get you more pumped up than you already are for the start of the season.

SEC Storylines

Second-year coaches - The second year is an important one when it comes to coaching. You've had a year to learn about your players, install your system, and then bring in some of your own guys.

Urban Meyer learned quickly that the SEC is a completely different ballgame than the MAC or MWC, and the consensus is that the product he puts on the field in '06 should be better, but that's dependent on many ifs, which are only significant before the kickoff.

Les Miles walked into a pretty cozy situation at LSU last year, and while the task is sure to be a lot more difficult this time around, with the loss of 11 starters, the Tigers still have enough talent to be a championship contender. He looked a little lost at some points in the '05 season (especially the Tennessee game), but with one year in the SEC under his belt, he won't have that same deer-in-the-headlights look.

Steve Spurrier isn't your everyday second-year coach, since he's been there, done that, and done some more in his first go 'round in the SEC. Winning in Columbia is a taller task than winning in Gainesville, but he pulled a few surprises last year, and with what appears on paper to be an improved squad in '06, expectations are running high, high, high at USC. He could have waited on another job, like the LSU one, or returned to his alma mater, but he's thus far proven that both he and the South Carolina administration made the right choice. A little house-cleaning is necessary, however, even if it means getting rid of some of your key players, or at least sitting them for a little while.

Ed Orgeron is still learning the ropes of being a head coach, and there haven't been many positives in the year and a half he's been in Oxford. He's proven he's got what it takes as a recruiter, and he's pulled some impressive (and to some, questionable) moves in getting some top-notch talent to Ole Miss. But only time will tell if all that talent is going to translate into regular wins for the Rebels.

Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, quarterbacks - At least four teams will have different starting QBs than they did in '05.

Brent Schaeffer, welcome back to the SEC. Oddly enough, the year that he returns is a year when Ole Miss doesn't play Tennessee.

Vandy's beginning life after Cutler with either a transfer from Arizona (Richard Kovalcheck) or a still-fresh sophomore (Chris Nickson).

Georgia will start Joe Tereshinski III in their opener, but freshman hotshot Matthew Stafford's digging into his heels already. When you have the NCAA's all-time wins leader and then the SEC Player of the Year in five years, it's easy to get spoiled.

Alabama retools as well, replacing Brodie Croyle with John Parker Wilson, who hasn't seen significant field time.

Mississippi State's Mike Henig became the starter in the ninth game vs. Alabama last year, and he's secured the starting nod for the Bulldogs for '06. How improved he is will go a long way in determining if MSU has another 3-win season or if they can make a push for a winning record.

A couple of other stud recruits stand to see some early playing time in Arkansas' Mitch Mustain (the #1 QB in the '06 class) and Florida's Tim Tebow (the #2 QB recruit).

Running the table - The SEC is a tough conference to go through unscathed, and even sometimes making it through with only one loss. Auburn did it in 2004, but three first-rounders at QB and RB, along with a little help from LSU, helped swing things in their favor. You need a few breaks to be able to do it, along with having superior talent.

If anyone has the chance to do it this year, it'd likely be Florida or Auburn. UF should take care of Tennessee, but the telling stretch for them will be the four-game run against 'Bama, LSU, Auburn, and Georgia. And then there's a trip to Tallahassee, where they'll be facing a top 10 team. The odds aren't good that they will make it through those five key games without at least one loss. Auburn has the most favorable schedule, with their toughest games in the comforts of home. LSU has a chance, but they'll have to do it with wins at Auburn and Florida.

Top Team Storylines

West

Alabama - As mentioned above, Wilson (Can I just call him J.P.?) steps in for Brodie Croyle at QB for the Tide, and while the Tide offense isn't predicated on stellar play from under center, he's going to need to be efficient enough to take some of the load off of the running game. Kenneth Darby is a great back, but if Wilson has trouble, then so will Darby.

The big question mark outside of quarterback is injuries. Injuries to key players have been one of 'Bama's main hiccups in their pursuit to get back to the top of the SEC, and in a year where they won't have a large margin for error, they're going to have to make sure no one with the name of Prothro (if he plays at all in '06), Darby, or Wilson - to name a few - is carted or carried off of the field. Here's the best tip Mike Shula can get this season: When you're winning by 31 in the 4th quarter, don't throw the ball on 4th down with your starters still in. Take a knee, or just fall on the ground, even if there's still half a quarter to play.

Arkansas - It's tough enough to have to face mighty USC in your opener, but the Razorbacks will now be doing it without star RB Darren McFadden, who apparently failed to realize that football player + bar fight = nothing good (When will these guys learn to keep themselves as far away from trouble as possible? That's another article for another month.). The Hogs do have two talented backs behind him, but when you're missing an All-American caliber player for at least a game or two, it puts pressure on everyone else to have to step it up a couple of notches.

Will the Springdale combo of M&M (Mustain and Malzahn), and the group of talented recruits they brought along to Fayetteville, turn the ship around? Houston Nutt has had a knack for saving himself, so you certainly can't look past him. Hiring a high school coach, Springdale High School's Gus Malzahn though he is innovative, proven, and successful, isn't a common practice in major college football (see: Gerry Faust), so how his creative play-calling carries over to the SEC will be interesting to watch.

Auburn - The last time expectations were this high for the Tigers, they started 0-2, and Tommy Tuberville was nearly shown the door. They have all of the ingredients to win the SEC title and contend for a national championship, but it's a tall task for anyone in the SEC to go unbeaten. And while you can foresee the Tigers in Atlanta, it might be going a step too far to pencil them in for a spot in Tempe in January.

LSU - Jamarcus Russell or Matt Flynn? Flynn or Russell?

Having two highly talented quarterbacks (three, if you count Ryan Perriloux) is a nice problem to have for LSU. Russell threw for 2,435 yards and 15 TDs and won 10 games as the starter last year. That puts him ahead for now, but Flynn (457 yards, 7 TDs in only 48 attempts) stepped in for an injured Russell and excelled in the Peach Bowl rout of Miami and then impressed in spring practice while Russell was still recuperating.

The Tigers have plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball, despite the loss of Joseph Addai. The question, however, is this: Who's going to ensure that talent has its chance to shine? Les Miles has to replace three starters from his offensive line.

The defense, which has been a staple of LSU's success, has key members to replace as well. The fall-off shouldn't be too severe, but if there is any downturn in their defensive prowess, it could spell the difference between contending for another SEC/national title or another Peach Bowl appearance.

Mississippi State - Shhhhhh....

Listen closely. What's that you hear coming from Starkville?

Expectations.

And for the first time in a few years, they're positive ones. Coach Sylvester Croom is entering his third-term manning the Scott Field sidelines, and the hope (and feeling) is that the third time is the charm for a program that needs it.

One of the big reasons why MSU's had problems in the last few years is offense, or lack there of, rather. It'd appear that things wouldn't be in a position to change, seeing as how the star of the offense, RB Jerious Norwood, is now plying his trade professionally in Atlanta.

But, the Bulldogs have depth at the running back position, with sophomore Brandon Thornton the 'starter' for now. But two true freshmen (and possibly three, if Courtney Jones becomes eligible), a I-A transfer (Christian Ducre from Tulane), and a returning player (Derek Ambrose) are all in the running for spots high on the depth chart. While Norwood was a star, he was 'it', and that meant big numbers for him at times, but not much unpredictability on offense.

Redshirt sophomore Mike Henig got the starting QB job late last season, and got some good experience and a rough introduction to the SEC. But, he's in his third year in the system, and he comes into the season with the job firmly in hand. And, he has receivers to throw to. Former QB Omarr Conner will be a full-time wideout this year, and talented JC transfers Tony Burks (projected starter) and Ryan Mason provide the most depth and talent the maroon and white have had at the WR position in several years.

The key though, is the offensive line. That, besides all of the other issues, is #1, or at least 1a, on the list of why MSU's had problems. This year's offensive line might still be young overall, but it's experienced youth, and it adds a top JC lineman in J.D. Hamilton, who'll come in and start immediately. Improved offensive line = more opportunities for the skill players to succeed = wins, wins, wins.

Defense has been a saving grace for MSU, and while they lose sack master Willie Evans, they're solid depth and talent-wise from the line to the secondary. If the offense is indeed improved, that'll mean the defense won't have to see the field as much as it's had to recent years, which'll keep MSU in a lot more games.

But, most importantly, it's obvious, from all of the statements that have been made by the players and coaching staff, there's an air of confidence in this year's team that has been missing in previous years, and if they can parlay that confidence (and the tangible stuff) into a season-opening win against South Carolina, the bevy of prognosticators who put MSU last in the West might have to eat their words.

Ole Miss - Oxford's abuzz with the arrival of former Tennessee QB Brent Schaeffer and the rest (or at least many) of a Top 15 recruiting class for the Rebels.

Quarterback was an issue for the Rebs last season, but so were the running game and the offensive line. They've got improvements in all three, but to put the burden of building on a bunch of newcomers and unproven talent is not quite what you want to do if you're Ed Orgeron (or, as Craig Bolerjack likes to say, Oh-ja-ro; bless you, Craig, and cover your mouth next time).

Schaeffer started his first game as a true freshman at Tennessee, which even Peyton Manning didn't do, and performed decently before he ran into some injury problems and before he began acting out his aspirations of being a two-sport athlete. But, that was two years ago, and he's got a much different team around him than he did at Tennessee.

The Rebels do have one of, if not the best, linebackers in the country in Patrick Willis, and he'll make plenty of big hits and tackles this season. But having big tackle numbers isn't always a good sign if they're coming after big gains by the opposition.

There's bowl talk in Oxford, and it could happen, but if they stumble out of the gate it might be another long year for the Rebels.

East

Florida - The introduction of the spread option produced some mixed results last season for the Gators. Trying to run the offense with a QB like Chris Leak is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. As talented as Leak is, it should be just as much a matter of adhering to his natural skills as it is to running your system. With highly touted recruit Tim Tebow coming in and certain to get at least a little playing time, Leak's going to be under pressure from more than opposing defenses. But he persevered last year, playing through a debilitating shoulder injury, and there's no reason to think that he won't this year.

Leak would likely have fared better had the Gator running game performed better. And someone, anyone, is going to have to step up for the same scenario to not repeat itself.

Georgia - How long will it be before Mark Richt names freshman Matthew Stafford as the starting quarterback? He's certainly the most talented of the QBs the 'Dawgs have, but Richt is entrusting Joe Tereshinki III with the signal-calling duties for the opener, at least. Stafford, just like Tebow, will at least see early playing time, and Richt may employ the same system he used with David Greene and D.J. Shockley until someone (the money's on Stafford) wins the job outright.

Stafford has an advantage over most freshmen since he's already had a spring to learn the offense, and that could only serve to expedite his ascension to the starting spot.

A lot of teams would be worried about letting an inexperienced guy take over at QB, but Mark Richt is the last person who'd be concerned about that. I seem to recall that the last time he's sent new starters out on the field (both at FSU and UGA), he's done fine, but it didn't come without taking a lump or two early on.

Kentucky - Rich Brooks managed to keep his job after another bad year last season, and he pulled off some solid captures on the recruiting trail. Will another year under Brooks, along with contributions from the newcomers, help make UK at least competitive enough to stay out of the cellar?

The Wildcat offense has the opportunity to put up good numbers. With Tim Couch, Dusty Bonner, and Jared Lorenzen, the offense was known more for its passing, but All-SEC back Rafael Little is going to be shouldering a great deal of responsibility this year. Whoever starts under center (either last year's starter Andre Woodson or Curtis Pulley) will need to make enough plays and limit mistakes, and utilize the weapons that will be available, including a newcomer in wideout Steve Johnson, one of the top JC wideouts in the country. Another year of learning under QB coach Kurt Roper should provide a boost as well. The offensive line will be much improved, and that will open up more holes for Little and more time for Woodson/Pulley.

Defense is the key, however. Even if the offense does put up solid numbers, the defense will at least need to be better than it has been in recent years. Brooks made some improvements on that front, bringing in the nation's #2 linebacker, Micah Johnson, and one of the nation's top defensive ends in Josh Minton. Both should contribute immediately to a defensive unit that's been comparable to my faucet.

The schedule has some winnable games, with Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Central Michigan, Ole Miss, and Vandy all coming to Lexington. Five or six wins could (and for Brooks' sake, should) happen, and a win or two on the road could make for an extremely successful year. There is potential, certainly, and they're in much of the same position as Mississippi State. But another three (or even four) win season could send Brooks packing.

South Carolina - In Steve Spurrier's previous college coaching stops, he fared very well in his second year on the job.

In his second year at Duke, his 1988 Blue Devils squad went 7-3-1 before winning the ACC title the next year. And in his second year at Florida, the Gators went 10-2 with a perfect 7-0 SEC record, and played in the Sugar Bowl.

So, if you go by that, and by the fact that his second Gamecock team brings back many of its key players from last year, then things should be on the up and up in Columbia. The Ol' Ball Coach's calling card has been offense, and the '06 version has great potential. QB Blake Mitchell returns after a solid year, and he has an explosive wideout to throw to in sophomore Sidney Rice. The run game, which in his tenure at Florida was at times forgotten and underrated, has a solid one-two punch with MIke Davis and Cory Boyd.

They do have to play a little defense though. There will be three new starters in the secondary, and a few other projected starters are either no longer on the team or will be unavailable for the start of the season. Last year's defense had issues with giving up big points and/or yards in several games, and if it's the Achilles' heel of the '06 'Cocks, then dreams of usurping the established order in the SEC East could be derailed early on.

Tennessee - The return of David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator could be what the doctor ordered for the Vols. He was a large part of their success in the 90s before he departed for Ole Miss. Things haven't been the same in Knoxville since he left, and Vol fans (and Phil Fulmer) hope he can restore a taste of the glory days.

There's not a lot to point to when it comes to the defense, which did just fine last year. The biggest questions have to do with the offense, even with Cut back in the fold. Last year, the Vol offense averaged only 18.6 points a game, which was 10th in the league, ahead of only MSU and Ole Miss. Not to be a bubble-buster, but it won't be easy the second time around, David. Here's to hoping he won't be wishing he stayed 'retired' after the Florida game.

There's no Peyton Manning under center, Jay Graham behind him, and Marcus Nash, Joey Kent, or Peerless Price split out wide. Erik Ainge needs to be more Heath Shuler than Peyton Manning, and maybe Cutcliffe can bring that out in him. Arian Foster'll be doing his Joey Graham impressions. Robert Meacham'll give being Marcus Nash a go.

You'd have to think that last year was just an aberration, right? I mean, even with a quarterback (as talented as he is and showed himself to be for the better part of 2004, before going down against Notre Dame) who's had his issues with injury and inconsistency in his first two years, or a team that has as many off the field worries as they do on the field. With all of the disciplinary issues that continue to crop up in Knoxville, Phil Fulmer has a lot more to worry about than he'd like to. It wasn't so long ago that he was on the 'invincible' list, but that shaky ground his program is gradually putting themselves on may turn into a full-fledged earthquake if the wins don't come again.

And he could be its biggest victim.

Vanderbilt - Will the post-Jay Cutler era bring a reversion back to the norm for Vandy football?

Bobby Johnson has improved his squad each year since he's been in Nashville, and last year the 'Dores were a few close losses away from a possible late December/New Year's Day bowl game. But a large part of that was due to Cutler, whose skills earned him a first-round pick in April's draft. Even with him, Vandy was still Vandy, and lost four games they could've or should've won. The difference between no bowl and a multi-million dollar New Year's Day payoff: 21 points.

Because Kovalcheck has solid major conference experience, he might be the best option for the start of the season, but in terms of fitting in the offense, Nickson is the better choice. Because of his fit in the system and the fact that this is his third year in it, he might get the edge There's a big-time receiver in Earl Bennett to make things a little easier for the QB, but the onus will be on the run game to step up, which it didn't always do for Cutler.

The Commodores certainly don't make things easy for themselves, opening at Michigan and then going to Alabama the next week, before coming home to face Arkansas. There are enough winnable games on their schedule that should see them at least not drop back to a two or three-win season, but Vandy's going to take their fair share of lumps in '06.

Games to Watch

Some of these matchups are big on a conference or nation-wide level; some carry a great deal of importance for certain teams.

We all know about UF/UGA, Auburn/LSU, Alabama/Auburn, UT/UF, etc., so they don't bear any explanation.

Mississippi State vs. South Carolina, August 31 - Some might wonder why ESPN would give these two teams a primetime slot, but the network made a good choice. MSU comes into 2006 with expectations, and a W in their opener will have a large say in the fulfillment of those expectations. Steve Spurrier has yet to win in Starkville, so he certainly has a score to settle. However, he'll be doing it without a number of key players. The Gamecocks will be favored, but it'd be remiss to call it an upset if the home team pulls it out. They're due, to say the least.

Tennessee vs. Cal, Sept. 2 - Positive: The Vols get tested right out of the gate. Negative: It might not be such a good thing.

Fresh off of its worst season in, well, a while, Tennessee has quite a task if it wants to open up 2006 with a bright start. But Cal has a Heisman hopeful RB in Marshawn Lynch, who stands to serve notice to the nation if he can run wild in Neyland Stadium.

Ole Miss at Missouri, Sept. 9 - Memphis won't be an easy game for the Rebs, but going to Columbia will help provide a good indication of what 2006 might have in store for Ole Miss. Missouri certainly isn't an 'elite' team, but they were a bowl team last year, and will push for one this year, so whatever road nerves Orgeron's youngsters might have are going to have to be shaken off early.

Mississippi State vs. West Virginia, Oct. 7 - This game was scheduled six years ago, when few, if anyone, would have thought that the Mountaineers would have a shot at being #1 when this game rolls around in October. At that time, MSU was the one on the brink of big-time success, and West Virginia wasn't close to sniffing the top 25.

As we all know, fortunes have greatly changed since then, and from faraway, it could be said that MSU might be walking right into a whoopin'. If this game was in Morgantown that could be true.

How the Bulldogs fare in their first five games will have a great bearing on which team shows up on the first Saturday in October. If the right team shows up, then this could be the signature win that Croom and Co. need to show that the bite is back. They have nothing to lose, because they're not going to be expected to win, even at home. The Mountaineers have a potential national title run to keep in tact, and a loss in this game would kill those hopes.

Florida vs. South Carolina, Nov. 11 - Well hello there, old friend.

Steve Spurrier will be on the visitor's sideline for the first time in Gainesville as he returns to his alma mater. Last year, in Spurrier's first year at USC, the Gamecocks pulled the upset in Columbia, despite being heavily out gained in yards.

With revenge and a possible SEC and/or national title on the line for the Gators, it could well be a rude homecoming. The Ol' Ball Coach made a number of enemies in his Florida days for supposedly running up the score against opponents with his high-powered offenses. There may well have been some truth to that statement, but at the same time, there were only a handful of teams who were capable and able to stop the Fun 'n Gun in the 90s.

Would Urban Meyer let it happen if the Gators are in a position to do so? Then again, who's to say this game will be a rout? Coach Spurrier has been there, done that, and knows how to prepare his teams for big games. And with the added importance this game'll bring, he'll have the troops primed to try to make the battle a close one, at least for a while. Regardless of who comes out on top, Florida fans will still love Steve Spurrier like no other even if he did spurn a return home.

Hurry up and get here, August 31, won't you?


Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at emg03e@garnet.acns.fsu.edu .

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